Innovators like Elon Musk who have long worked to get self-driving trucks on the road are poised to remove the last humans left in the modern supply chain
Ive been driving big trucks since shortly after my 21st birthday in 1980 and I always figured Id be able to stay on the road until retirement. Now Im not so sure. Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Daimler, Tesla, Uber, Ford and Toyota are all investing billions of dollars in driverless vehicles.
Im sure about one thing, though: driverless trucks will be here before driverless cars because thats where the early money is going to be made. With some of the worlds most aggressive and best capitalized companies racing to be first with a viable driverless vehicle, I dont give myself very good odds on choosing when to hang up my keys.
The only humans left in a modern supply chain are truck drivers. Todays cutting-edge warehouses buzz with automated forklifts and robots that load and unload trucks while drivers stand around sipping coffee and getting paychecks and health insurance. Thats the kind of thing that drives corporate finance types crazy. The best option is to eliminate drivers.
I understand that global industry is constantly being reinvented to reduce inefficiencies. New technologies will not be stopped, because if we dont do it here, theyll do it everywhere from Singapore to Shanghai or Dusseldorf and well be left behind.
I also understand that human error is responsible for almost all vehicle accidents. About 1.25 million people worldwide are killed on roadways every year, including 40,000 in the US. Ive no doubt that when the technology is perfected and critical mass is achieved, those millions of deaths will be reduced to a trickle.
But whats the endgame with all this technological innovation?
In the early 19th century, weavers went on strike to protest the power loom in British textile factories. They were called Luddites. A cave artist in Chauvet might have emerged after a day of drawing 35,000 years ago to see someone scratching on sheepskin with charcoal. This new technology, our artist would surely have groused, is going to ruin our culture. This question of where were going with technology has been steamrolled by the pace of innovation. Its long past time we figured this out.
For drivers like me, driverless trucks are the power loom and the sheepskin. There are about 3 million of us in the US alone (plus 600,000 in Britain), and we will soon be extraneous roadkill, so to speak, except we wont be dead. That makes us, as one driver said, disposable people. Too bad for us, you might think. Were on the wrong side of history.
Maybe so, but guess what? Youre next. When automation starts displacing lawyers, accountants and bankers, then we might see some push-back about the social costs of technology. So long as its only truckers and factory workers getting sacked, well, theres always Walmart, McDonalds, or food stamps.
What we want is to work and support our families. Were citizens. We coach soccer and go to parents night at school and pay our taxes. Who is taking responsibility for the human cost runaway technology is causing? Not the companies reaping enormous benefits. Not the fleet owners. Not the software engineers. Not governments.
Im not at all confused by the general surge in populism were seeing. The tail of technology is wagging the dog of the social contract, leaving millions of citizens in penury. Even the Economist, no foe of innovation, admits that the US, and the west, have fallen far short in addressing the problem of displaced workers. Something needs to change.
We can start by accepting that both the private and public sectors have a responsibility to manage the human side of technological disruption.
- Finn Murphy is an American long-haul trucker and the author of The Long Haul: A Truckers Tales of Life on the Road